Monday, January 09, 2012

Patience in Building

'Tis a very rare occasion in life which does not warrant patience. From relationships (contrary to the belief of some) to marriage to raising children to career opportunities, having patience is key to being more successful.

Lately, people in certain circles cannot help but keep reading about a particular subject and people's reactions to and opinions on it, and it has been truly irksome. The lack of patience, particularly toward people and an approach in an area of life in which people are almost completely unfamiliar is astounding. More frustrating than that is how incredibly repetitively self-destructive this lack of patience has proven to be in the past, and to see people calling to do it again makes one wonder if people are simply deserving of the fate they are receiving: 'Fool me once...' Instead, here is the key: Stop looking at what everyone else is doing, and realize that to be successful, you have to build what works best for you.

In the case of the Cleveland Browns, this is an incredibly important lesson. (What, not what you thought this was going to be about?) I've been a Browns fan my entire life, with my first football memory (of course) The Fumble, and my first game a season-opening 13-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers (woo!). For much of my life, the Browns have tried to be copycats in a copycat league... except what everyone neglects to realize is that the copycats are never the ones who are ultimately the champions. It is only the trend-setters who are able to succeed in their schemes, and everyone else is merely a weak copy.

In the last couple of years, it looked like the Browns were finally going to give a front office a chance to build from the foundation up. That they too quickly undermined Eric Mangini's approach is academic at this point; now, they are building toward a Mike Holmgren-style team, with some adjustments from lessons learned over many years. It is mind-boggling to call for Coach Pat Shurmur to be fired after a single year on the job, a year in which with no real training camp, nearly no offensive talent, incredible gaffes, and countless injuries in a difficult division he still managed to keep nearly every game close with a team that always strongly supported him. To even discuss firing Shurmur smacks of an impatience that will never allow success unless it occurs via miracle (insert Tebow joke here).

Instead, let's take a step back and look at how the Browns are being built, particularly giving credence to the front office as if they're actually telling the truth (gasp!) when they discuss how they plan to build the team: Via the draft, with strategic free agency signings only once the core is established to push the team over the top. Currently, the Browns have three picks in the first 37 of the 2012 draft (#s 4, 22, and 37). They also have a very strong young core on defense, and a relatively good offensive line, certainly on the left side.

Perhaps the most interesting overlooked aspect of the team is how it is structured defensively. The Browns' defense is structured primarily to stop intermediate and long passes and short-yardage runs. Perhaps more importantly, the Browns' defense is built to play with a lead. It is a pass-rushing line, including the defensive tackles, and a defense which does not utilize many blitzes except an occasional safety blitz with a clear lane (think forcing the QB to throw quickly) and linebackers covering short zones. The linebackers are zone coverage players who even on short-yardage run situations start 4-5 yards back and rush forward into gaps. And the corners, especially Joe Haden, are trusted to cover their man on their own in the short time the line is designed to give the opposing QB to throw. Only one team (Pittsburgh) gave up less passes of 20 or more yards. Only seven gave up less of 40+ yards, and Browns fans will recall that most of those eight long gains were actually short passes that had missed tackles. In essence, the Browns' defense is built as a hybrid of the Steelers (stable design), Jets/Eagles (corners first), Giants (pass rush), and Niners (goal line) defenses, with stud players in the pass rush and secondary, allowing otherwise slightly above average LBs to truly excel.

It is worth noting that based on the above, it would actually be interesting to see if the Browns take LSU's stud cornerback Morris Claiborne if he's available at the 4th pick. If he is as good as advertised, it would give the Browns two "#1" CBs, allowing TJ Ward to give even greater focus to what he does best, which is supporting the run defense. (It would also give the Browns incredible depth in the secondary, with at least Claiborne, Haden, Patterson, Skrine, Ward, Young, Adams, and Hagg.) Even if they don't feel a need to get Claiborne, there will certainly be excellent cover corners available in the early second round for them. This - especially coupled with a RDE - could make the Browns' defense a truly dominant one, and for many years to come, as nearly everyone in the starting lineup would be in their early-mid 20s. It would also make it easier for the Browns to bring projects in in future years to learn the defense, similar to how the Steelers have been able to stick nearly anyone into their scheme thanks to the support around them as they learned and improved.

That leaves the big question: How can such a team have a lead to play with? Here, too, the Browns' direction may show an answer. One of the interesting notes when looking at successful lines is that they often have Pro-Bowl caliber players at two or three spots, allowing the other linemen to excel. The Browns have a future Hall of Famer at LT in Joe Thomas, and a Pro Bowler at C in Alex Mack. Unsurprisingly, a 6th round rookie had a reasonably good year working in between the two of them, while the other side of the line struggled mightily. It would be interesting to see if the Browns - assuming they don't pick Claiborne - either take Matt Kalil if he's still available, or actually choose to trade down a few spots to a team desperate for Griffin III and pick up Iowa's Riley Reiff and put him at RT, adding another 2nd round pick or similar in the process. Between Kalil/Reiff and the return of Pro Bowler Eric Steinbach, the Browns could have a line that is incredibly dominant and also mostly rather young (outside of Steinbach). More impressively, it would be a nice innovation to approach a West Coast Offense with the mindset of having All-Pro level tackles on each side and another at center, and even another at guard. Having that extra time until wide receivers can find the proper seams and having that kind of line to run behind has helped spur many a champion.

In addition, the Browns made the clear decision to not pursue free agent WRs last season, choosing instead to spend their extra money on locking up many other key players into long-term deals and keeping a lot of money available for this year and next. This year's free agent WR list is stacked, and while it's unclear if the Browns plan on pursuing any of the really big names, they certainly have more quality options than existed last year. Even bringing in one above average WR would dramatically alter the Browns' abilities on the offensive side, with Greg Little in his second season and Jordan Norwood showing the ability to stretch the field as a 3rd or 4th option.

Running back is a bit more of a question mark - while re-signing Peyton Hillis and the return of Brandon Jackson would basically solve it, it is possible the Browns feel they don't need a RB such as Hillis, particularly with his durability issues both seasons. There are plenty of RBs with similar or better "pedigrees" available for less, and in the West Coast Offense the Browns are running, it's possible they'll go without Hillis. That said, I think that they'll try to re-sign Hillis to an incentive-laden contract and that he'll come back to take it.

Finally, this approach, starting with a strong offensive line, should allow Colt McCoy to truly succeed. McCoy showed the ability to throw very well given enough time, and in fact has been far better than many great QBs from history over the same period of their careers, throwing for more TDs than INTs, more yards, and a much higher completion percentage (despite a team which led the league in drops). Even if he shows he cannot, the Browns would still be in a strong position to bring in a rookie QB the following year (Matt Barkley?) into a stacked team with a great line.

All in all, it is quite possible that the following scenario will occur for the Browns: They will draft a top tackle, a strong right defensive end, and an elite cover cornerback in the first two rounds of the draft, and pick up a decent but not spectacular WR on the free agent market for relatively cheap (such as an Early Doucet). They will then be a upper-middle of the pack team, with a standout defense and a middling offense led by a great line which shows flashes, but which ultimately both wins and loses a number of close games in a pretty difficult schedule against similar level teams (facing the NFC East and AFC West), winning about half their division games as well. They will then head into the 2013 season with a couple of small holes discovered during the year and easily solved through free agency (prediction: LB, DL depth) and one gaping hole at WR, and will have the opportunity - much as Atlanta did - to trade up to grab the WR they desire in the draft, and they will do so. The biggest difference is that the Browns will be starting with a much better defense than Atlanta, and this may be the difference between being a playoff loser and a team that can make a run at a Super Bowl... or a few.

It just takes a little time, that's all.